Actresses are often asked to undergo many transformations for a part, including gaining a few pounds, dyeing their hair and even donning prosthetic noses. Few, if any, films require their leading ladies to take sewing lessons. But for “Bright Star,” the latest period drama from Jane Campion, Abbie Cornish became a master with needle and thread in order to portray protagonist Fanny Brawne.
The 26-year-old Australian actress has received rave reviews for her performance, which is in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival and traces the ill-fated romance between Brawne and her neighbor, the 19th-century poet John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw). The passionate love affair lasted for three years before Keats’ death from tuberculosis in 1821 at age 25.
Cornish, a natural blonde, dyed her locks chocolate brown, filled out her figure to fit with the era’s rounder beauty standards and took diction lessons in order to deliver Keats’ poetry just so. Her quirky wardrobe, including an array of hats conceived by costume designer Janet Patterson, were also key to expressing Brawne’s feisty and unique character.
“[The costumes] were definitely important to the character because [Brawne] used to sew everything she wore and was known for being flamboyant,” says Cornish. “You look back to her journals and they’re filled with drawings, different embroidery patterns and fabric swatches.”
Indeed, Brawne’s seamstress skills help stitch together the trajectory of the film, from an opening shot of Cornish working on white cotton to a glimpse of her making her widow’s gown at the movie’s end.
Declaring herself “hopelessly slavish to fashion,” Brawne proudly announces in one scene: “This is the only dress in Hampstead with a triple mushroom collar.”
Such exclamations reveal Brawne’s creativity, says Campion. “In that period there weren’t many opportunities for women to express themselves,” she points out. “They sewed and they waited; it has a kind of rhythm — needle in, needle out — to me that’s kind of poetic.”
Campion, who wrote the screenplay, studied the couple’s love letters to draw inspiration.
“The history of these two characters caught me so unaware,” she says. “I fell in love with Fanny as much as I did Keats and telling the story through her eyes was such a great way for me to meet Keats.”
As much as the characters, the film features the natural world, from stunning vistas of London’s Hampstead Heath to a scene of Brawne and her sister indoors, covered in giant butterflies.
“The room had to be kept really warm [for the butterflies] so it was like being in a sauna, we were dripping with sweat,” recalls Cornish. “You’d never know where the butterflies were going to land so some parts of the scene became impromptu.”
The closing scene, in which the actress recites one of Keats’ poems dressed in black against a snowy backdrop, remains the most memorable for Cornish. Surprisingly, she managed to wrap it in just one hour during the first week of filming.
“They had the whole set and they were ready to shoot, and I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to get this right?’” she recalls. “I walked on in the black outfit and suddenly everything seemed very magical and right. You could have heard a twig break.”